Tuesday , June 22 , 2010
Steve Albini is a musician, recording engineer and poker player. He started playing poker as a child with his family, and specializes in mixed games. His band, Shellac, has been together for 20 years, and his studio in Chicago, Electrical Audio, is well known among musicians. In his first event of the 2010 WSOP (his first ever WSOP), Seven Card Stud, he finished 14th for over $6k. His most recent video on Razz was released today.
Tell us about your 2010 WSOP
This is my first trip to WSOP, and I had to break it up with regular real life work interspersed with poker, so I'm only playing three events. I cashed and made the final two tables of the first event I played, $1500 Seven Card Stud, which was nice, then made day two but short of the money in the $3000 HORSE event. Today I busted out late in day one of the $1500 Razz event, and that will be it for me unless I make a big score in a cash game before Thursday. If I make a bunch of money I'll reward myself by sticking around for the $2500 Eight Game event.
I've really enjoyed the cash games during the series because there's a lot more variety than is typically available in a casino setting. There's a Stud8 game that runs every day, and I've played a bunch of crazy mixes including draw lowball games, which I love, and there was a full game of Razz running all day yesterday with a wait list. I wonder how long it's been since that happened in a casino.
How did you get started playing poker?
My family always played cards recreationally. In our extended family the principle games were Pinochle and Cribbage, and my father was a Bridge master, so card games were all around me as a kid. I was taught draw poker by my great grandmother Dora Mckeever, using cocktail toothpicks and boullion cubes as chips. From college on (1980) I've pretty much always had some kind of regular home game I could play in, though there were periods of a few years where I was unfathomably busy and didn't play very often. My interest in poker got rekindled and I started taking poker more seriously after we finished construction at the studio (Electrical Audio in Chicago) and I had more time on my hands. Russ Arbuthnot, who worked at the studio and started the Tuesday game, turned me on to RGP, 2+2 and eventually Cardrunners, and I've used those communities extensively to help my thinking about all poker games.
You went deep in the $1,500 Seven Card Stud event - what was that experience like?
Fucking sweet is what it was. I don't consider myself a particularly good tournament player, and I'm certainly not very experienced in tournaments, but I understand stud games pretty well and I think that compensated somewhat given that the typical tournament field at WSOP is heavy in players who don't play stud that often. Some of them literally only play it once a year when they sign up for a full slate of tournaments regardless of the game type. I got into some really interesting situations, some of which I'm still mulling over.
A little highlight was busting Greg Raymer, because when anybody busts him, he autographs a fossil paperweight and gives it to him as a memento. That was pretty cool. When it looked like I was going to last a while I had people back home following my progress online and sending me encouragement, which made me feel great. My wife, who doesn't particularly care for my interest in poker, even allowed herself to get excited about it. After cashing in that event, the other events were essentially a freeroll, and I met a bunch of really cool people, so all in all, I couldn't have asked for a better first WSOP experience.
Who were your toughest opponents in the tournament?
Scott Seiver is a very solid player and and he just ate everybody up the first day. John Turner has a lot of mixed game experience and plays the stud games well. I didn't get to play with Dan Heimiller, but from what I've seen he plays stud games well.
Did you play with Richard Ashby, the eventual winner?
I played with him quite a bit on day two. He had terrific hands and it's hard to really evaluate somebody's play when he's always turning over a straight at showdown. There's a kind of old-school stud conventional wisdom that drawing to a naked straight is an indicator of weak play. Essentially, straight draw equity in stud is a kind of backup plan. If your starting hand is nothing but connected cards without big cards, a pair or a suit, then it's pretty hard to back into another kind of winning hand.
A naked three-straight isn't a premium holding, especially in cases where cards close in rank to yours may be folded or in your opponents' hands, and I didn't see the non-specialists taking that much notice of exposed cards. Straight draws can add substantially to hands that include pairs or a suit or even just a clutch of live big cards, and that is their chief utility in stud games, but on their own, connected cards are weak hands. The extension of this is that if a guy is always showing down an eight-high straight, then he's probably getting a very good run of cards, and Ashby was making straight after straight on day two. He's an accomplished poker player, and I'm not saying anything bad about his stud play, I'm just saying I couldn't tell how good he was specifically at stud.
What was the most interesting hand you played?
My bustout hand was interesting. Julian Herold, who had been nursing a very short stack brought it in with a Deuce, I had five big bets left and completed with (KK)J. Darren Shebell had a lot of chips and had been playing some solid third street hands and also drawing to some funky holdings that had worked out well for him, so I wasn't surprised when he flatted with (xx)T. Herold called, leaving himself less than one big bet behind. That was an odd play, and I don't think it was good. If he raised, I certainly would have three-bet, which might have forced out Shebell and allowed him to isolate one player, giving him a much better chance to win the pot, or if Shebell called give him a multiplier overlay on his case money. His flat was unusual, and the only holding that I might consider playing that way (as him) would be a 3-flush. A hand like that can pick up a lot of equity on the next card, but has no showdown value yet, and there may be some merit to calling the completion getting good odds and then folding with a tiny stack if he doesn't improve.
On Fourth street, Herold pairs the Deuce (xx)22 and because of the fourth street rule he can get all-in, so he does. I catch a Trey (KK)J3 and Shebell catches a Nine (xx)T9. I raise Herold's lead with a big bet and Shebell calls pretty quickly. I could maybe fold with a bigger stack here if I give Herold credit for exactly trips, but I was critically short, so my raise here is to isolate the Deuces, because if he has a three-flush I'm ahead, if he has a small two-pair I'm not behind by much and I can draw for no additional cost because he's all-in, and if he has trips I may get enough out of the side pot with Shebell to keep my stack viable. I'm not sure what Shebell has, but something like split Tens with connecting cards is looking likely. On Fifth street the deuces show (xx)227, I catch an Ace (KK)J3A and bet, Shebell catches a three, showing (xx)T93 and calls, which struck me as odd, because I had exactly one bet left, and with two more cards coming Shebell should probably be committing to his hand or folding here. Sixth street I pair the Ace for (KK)J3AA and put my last bet in even though Shebell just paired his door (XX)T93T, because there's some chance he started with a pocket pair like Eights or Queens, a 3-straight like (89)T, (QJ)T or some other big card hand that now has a pair, overs to my door and a gutter. All these are hands I'm beating at the moment that will certainly call one bet, and in any case all my fill outs are live if I'm behind and I can't really fold at this point.Shebell made Tens Full of Nines and calls immediately. I don't improve and Shebell busts both me and Herold.
How did you get started in the music business?
I've been in bands since I was a teenager, and when you're in a band you want to make recordings so you'll have something to remember it by. In my bands, it always fell on me to make those recordings, so I developed the requisite skills, and eventually started making recordings for my friends' bands, and eventually perfect strangers were asking me to make records for them. It grew organically from there until I was able to quit my straight job and just do recordings as a profession. In 1995 I bought a big building and a bunch of punk rockers and I built a couple of really nice studios in it, and that's Electrical Audio, where I've worked ever since.
What exactly you do as a recording engineer?
My job is to do the actual sound recordings and mixes that constitute the final record, and make sure the technical details are well organized and executed during the sessions. I organize the band's equipment and positioning in the studio rooms, set up and operate all the equipment (microphones, recording console, outboard electronic equipment and tape machines) and solve problems during the session. I don't get involved in songwriting for other people or making complete backing tracks by myself like some producers, so I'm content to be called an engineer. Since I am still a musician in a band myself, I have a lot of respect for what a band comes up with on its own, so I try not to interfere too much. I'd prefer it if people who buy a record I worked on get a chance to interact honestly with the band whose name is on the cover, rather than some embellishment of that done by me.
What are some of the more popular albums you've worked on?
Most popular would probably include Nirvana "In Utero," the Pixies "Surfer Rosa," Bush "Razorblade Suitcase," the Breeders "Pod" and "Title TK," Jimmy Page and Robert Plant "Walking into Clarksdale," the Wedding Present "Seamonsters," Jarvis Cocker "Further Complications," and PJ Harvey "Rid of Me." Those are the records you'd probably read about in my obituary. While I'm happy to have worked on all those records, I've done a lot more with underground and independent bands like Low, Neurosis, Superchunk, High on Fire, the Frames, Flogging Molly, the Jesus Lizard, Scrawl, Silkworm, Tar, Nina Nastasia, Scout Niblett, Will Oldham, Magnolia Electric Co, the Ex, Robbie Fulks, the Sadies, Sparklehorse and a bajillion more. I consider these independent musicians my closest peers and comrades.
Are you often recognized at tables?
Not often. Usually it's a dealer rather than a player who turns out to be a music fan. Online, since I use my name as my screen name I sometimes get comments, but typically people assume that it isn't me, just a screen name. Erik Seidel recognized me when we played stud online and we've since had dinner, shared some music and become friends a little. He's a very knowledgeable music fan and writes perceptively about music on his blog.
How do your opponents react if/when they find out who you are?
I've only had a couple of people comment on it, and usually they say something nice. It's only in the relatively small world of the music scene that I have any notoriety. The majority of people, and therefore the majority of poker players, don't really think about music that much.
What is your proudest musical achievement?
The band I'm in, Shellac of North America has been together for almost 20 years, which is an accomplishment by itself, but I am really satisfied with the way we've conducted ourselves. It's almost a bonus that I am also still proud of the music we make.
What is your proudest poker achievement?
The WSOP cash was nice, but I'm probably actually most proud of helping to develop the game of Swingo, which was invented at the Tuesday Game.
Rules of Swingo:
Pot-limit game played with two equal blinds. Everyone is dealt five cards and there is a round of betting. After the betting closes, each player chooses two of his cards to place face-down as his hole cards and exposes three cards, as though on Fifth street in stud. The exposed cards ("the Board") remain in play unless the hand holding them folds, wherein they are mucked. (Note: folding without action pending is not allowed) There is another round of betting, starting with the best hand showing (as in stud) After the betting is closed, a single community card, "the river," is dealt and there is a final round of betting. The best five-card hand wins.
A player may use any one of the other players' exposed cards (the Board, not another player's hole cards) in his hand. More than one player may use the same Board card. Any player may use the river card in his hand. Players are not required to use any board cards or the river card to make their hands. A player must use a minimum of three cards from his original five-card hand.
The thing that makes Swingo so great is that betting and raising have different functions than in any other poker game. Often it will be obvious that a card from player A's board completes some big hand for player B, so player C needs to structure the action in a way that forces A to fold, because he will then beat player B. Player B, on the other hand, wants to be sure player A will see showdown because his hand is a bust without him. Because the betting is pot limit, both of these situations are complicated by the potential size of a bet or raise. Certain hands require bigger pots in the beginning so a bet or raise later in the hand can punch harder, while certain hands need other boards in play, so value can be gotten once the hand is made. In some instances, there is a fine line between betting your hand for value and risking an opponent folding a card you need.
Any secret to balancing music with poker?
Well, I don't have much time off because of my schedule, so when I get a day off either through design or circumstances, I try to play a little poker, either online or live. I can't let poker interfere with the running of the studio or me being booked on sessions, so I just treat it like a hobby. It's paid me some nice dividends over the years, but I'm sure part of the reason I like it so much is that I don't have to rely on poker to pay my bills. Poker winnings tend to get used for indulgences like a vacation or to take the sting off a big purchase like a car or some household refurbishment. The one thing nicer than lying in the sun on the beach is knowing it was paid for by a legion of donkeys.
The other secret to general happiness involving poker is to avoid situations that lend themselves to enormous stress, like playing in games you know you can't beat or for stakes you shouldn't be playing. When I'm looking for a game either online or live, I want the best game available. Sometimes that means moving up or down in stakes, sometimes it means changing to a different game, sometimes it means being willing to forego playing entirely until a game worth playing materializes.
Too many players identify with a certain game, cardroom or stake level, and I think it's vital to have an assortment of each available to make picking the best game easier. On a given night of the week, my best option may be a 25-cent home game, a private $1-2 NLHE game, a live $40-80 mixed game or an online $5-10 Razz game, and I try to know which it is. Playing in a bad game just because it's running and you want to play something eventually leads to a poor outcome.
What are your current music projects?
I record a different band every couple of days, so I can't really answer that accurately, but as far as my own music is concerned, Shellac will be recording some songs after we finish a short European tour this Autumn with an eye toward releasing a record eventually. We work real slow.
Tell us about your most recent razz video. Can anyone delve in and learn from your videos?
There's a kind of conventional wisdom among poker players (who may have a little exposure to Razz but don't invest a lot of time studying it), that Razz is a simple, mechanical game, and I want to dispel that. The other highlighted player in this video, Brandon Shack, Oscillator on the forums, plays in a quite different style and thinks about the game differently from me, and I hoped to demonstrate that there is more than one way to look at the game.
As a winning player whose main game is Razz, Brandon obviously has some insight into what other players are doing and why, and players of all skill levels can learn from him. My play tends to be more technical and in many situations is opponent neutral, based on the cards seen, apparent hand value and likely equity, while Brandon tends to build very complete player profiles based on reads and reactions to his moves. My notes and reads are drier, with examples of typical play and maybe a summary of the player profile.
A benefit of having both of us doing commentary is that we sometimes disagree about the best conclusion to draw, and hearing the reasoning behind those conclusions will give viewers a framework to help organize their own thinking about hands they see underway. Also, it's fun to fight about stuff.
I just busted out of the WSOP Razz event a few minutes ago on a couple of unpleasant hands, so I'm not thinking too charitably about Razz at the moment. It's the only poker game where you can start out with a fantastic hand and it can degrade into nothing as the cards come out. If they deal you Aces in Holdem, nobody's going to reach in and take them away from you, but that's what Razz feels like when the cards break against you. It's a pretty ugly game honestly.
What other games do you play besides razz and stud?
I play Holdem when I have to, like in a casino where that's all they spread or in a private game where that's all anybody wants to play. I don't mind it, but I prefer the stud format games, Stud, Eight-or-Better Stud and Razz. I also like all the draw and triple-draw poker games, including lowball, badugi and of course Swingo. I'm not crazy about PLO, but that's because I'm not good at it. I don't play it much both because it doesn't interest me and because the games play so big now I basically can't find a game for stakes I'm comfortable with. Even a $2-5 PLO game eventually gets deep enough that there are often thousands of dollars in the middle.
Any plans to do a stud series?
My intention was to do basic tutorials on all the stud format games, intermixed with live action to flesh-out the concepts, and I still think of that as the plan, though it looks like it might take a while for me to find time to do them. I still need to finish the Razz tutorial, and come to some kind of logical conclusion with the live Razz footage.